For those who don’t know, my original qualifications in academia are a first class honours degree in history, eighteenth century Irish history, to be precise. I commenced and completed about half a PhD but birth trauma made this untenable and so since 2004 I’ve done birth work instead. I have a small understanding of early modern witch hunts, those panics largely directed at women (some European countries gendered the witch as male at this time), where local loyalties, inheritances, misogyny, religion and many other fears and pressures created a maelstrom of vicious assaults, state sanctioned torture and murder, property confiscation and lots more besides. While I understand that folk history tells us midwives are the main subject of this I would argue more that women were affected and midwifery is one profession which only included women at this time. I feel some discomfit when we use this term witch hunt in what seems to me an ahistorical manner.
There can be no doubting that the international obstetric movement, or industrial delivery complex, is very active at present and winning victories all the time all over the world. Midwives are being gaoled from the US to Hungary. Midwives’ livelihoods are being threatened as their lives are turned upside down searching for non-existent crimes in normal births which simply happen to occur outside of hospitals and so out of the reach of obstetricians, the new priests of modernity who seek to remove women’s birth power and thus neuter women’s bodies into passive recipients of surgery. Advocates of women’s rights and autonomy are, I feel, somewhat caught on the hop at this point despite this being an ongoing war on women’s bodies over some centuries now because many of us fail to recognise the depth of the crisis and the organisational capabilities of the surgeons and their fellow travellers. Vogons in suits are far more dangerous to us than fanciful hunters of mythical witches.
Unlike witch hunting though, it is women who are the victims of the violence and midwives who are, largely, the victims of institutional violence and hysteria created by a media which is willing to promote anything in the sale of advertorial. Our consent for obstetrics has been slowly manufactured over time and most of us no longer remember when birth was a private family matter, the midwife arrived on a bicycle and it was all no big deal. I fully appreciate the desire many feel to link the struggle to an historical event but I would encourage my peers to consider the far wider, ongoing movement of women’s rights in general which has gone on for some centuries in its current form as a more appropriate model and proud heritage of struggle. Suffragettes who were gaoled and tortured did not refer to their experience as witch hunt despite the harrowing physical assaults which maimed and killed women in prisons, particularly in England. Those women too are our ancestors and role models.
When we place our current crises in a wider context of women’s rights globally and we recognise the power and money in our opponents, we both depersonalise this struggle and place the blame where it belongs: with those who would seek to remove our right to bodily integrity. ‘Witch hunt’ seems to me to buy into the hysteria, it removes the focus from what is really happening: a slow, grinding and inexorable politico-industrial movement aimed at creating markets from normal physiological processes and controlling women’s bodies and behaviours. We do ourselves no favours when we romanticise this struggle, it is no more special than any of the other struggles women have faced such as suffrage, access to education or access to birth control. I also feel that we fail to appreciate the shocking violence and destruction which was witch hunting in full flight as experienced by thousands of women, men, children and animals. While I will be in court in April, no one will be checking me for a witch mark or burning me alive at the end of the process. For these things I am profoundly grateful. And for these reasons I will not call the political movement which I face a witch hunt.